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Internet Calling On The Leading Edge Of New Technology

Vonage In Print News

January 5, 2004

By Jeff Gelles

(KRT) - Remember all the talk a few years back about the "technology dividend" - the savings we'd someday reap from various kinds of technological progress?

Instead, it often seems as if all we do is pay extra for neat new stuff we just can't live without: computers, cell phones, video recorders, iPods.

But for people who make lots of long-distance phone calls, someday is right now, thanks in large part to the rapid expansion of Internet-based phone service.

Internet calling isn't just about saving money. In all likelihood, it's the leading edge of other kinds of new stuff we'll willingly pay more for. Think of video phone calls to Grandma and Grandpa, or Caller ID showing up in a window on your television screen while you watch "The Sopranos.

But for now, Internet calling's greatest allure is that it's a way to economize on ordinary phone usage.

In the last few weeks, AT&T and Time Warner Cable have announced major forays into this new way of delivering calls. Verizon already offers Internet calling to business customers and plans to offer it to consumers by the middle of next year. Comcast Corp. has been experimenting, too, though it hasn't announced a formal rollout.

But Internet phone calling is already available to consumers, at service quality that at least matches the wireless-phone technology it parallels, from companies such as Vonage, of Edison, N.J. (

Here are answers to questions about how services such as Vonage's work, and what the future holds for what's formally known as "Voice over Internet Protocol" (VoIP) technology.

What is VoIP? The abbreviation refers to a technical standard that enables your voice to be translated into packets of data. Those packets travel like any other data over the Internet, or over proprietary networks, and are then reassembled into voice.

Voip calls are similar to digital cell-phone calls, which also rely on the fact that fast computers can disassemble your voice and reassemble it so quickly that it can sound as good as a traditional analog phone call.

Do I have to make these calls from my computer? No, although that's how the technology was introduced.

The earliest applications of Voip were aimed at technophiles willing to use their computers as phones, speaking on microphones and listening through speakers or headsets.

You can still make cheap Internet phone calls that way. The best-known version, from Net2Phone Inc. (, offers 2-cent-a-minute domestic long-distance from your PC to somebody else's phone, and deeply discounted international calls.

But the newer services use ordinary phones.

What kind of Internet service is necessary? Broadband, either cable or DSL. (Net2Phone also works with dial-up Internet service, but the slower data-transmission speeds produce shakier voice quality - one of the reasons that Voip won an early reputation as not quite ready for prime time.)

OK, I'm interested. How does it work? Vonage ships its customers a Motorola adapter that installs between the cable or DSL modem and the computer. The adapter gives you three options for phone hookups:

Connect a single phone to the adapter, if all you need is one phone.

Connect a multi-unit cordless-phone base station to the adapter, and spread several cordless handsets throughout your house.

Connect the adapter into a wall jack, a hookup that allows you to use extension phones just as you do now. (If you go this route, remember to first disconnect your home telephone wiring from your local phone company's system. Forget that, and you could fry all your equipment.)

How much can I save? Verizon hasn't set a price for its Voip service but says it will be cheaper than traditional phone service.

Vonage's prices are low enough to get attention: For unlimited local and long-distance calling to the United States and Canada, it currently charges $35 a month - $20 less than Verizon's flat-rate plan, $15 less than MCI and AT&T's versions, and $5 less than IDT's.

At least for the moment, Vonage and other Voip providers have another price advantage: exemption from many of the surcharges paid by customers of traditional phone service, which typically add about $15 a month to the flat-rate plans. Vonage says a typical flat-rate customer will pay an extra $3 to $5 a month.

So what are the drawbacks? The voice quality of Voip calls has vastly improved over the last several years, but some calls are still subject to the kind of static or break-up that can plague digital cell-phone calls. And service quality may depend on the quality of your Internet connection.

Companies such as Verizon and Comcast say they're likely to route most calls over proprietary networks rather than over the "public Internet," which may give their services a quality edge.

In a test conversation this week with a Vonage phone, the only drawback I noticed was occasional light static.

Other shortcomings involve 911 emergency calls and power outages.

A Vonage customer can enable 911 service, though a dispatcher will see only that customer's phone number, not his or her home address. And Internet calling won't work during a power outage, unless your system is equipped with a battery backup.

Drawbacks, to be sure. But Internet calling may be a technology dividend that's ready to pay off.

This story also appeared in:
  • Fort Wayne News Sentinel, 1/5/04

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    †AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

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    HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See for details.

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